Making good decisions on the ultimate field is easier said than done, but you can strive to improve with this insight.
November 30, 2015 by Sion "Brummie" Scone in Analysis, Interview with 39 comments
2014, Lecco. Clapham is playing Buzz Bullets in the 5v8 round. David “Thrash” Stobbs gets open for a small gainer in the middle of the field, spots a deep cut, and throws an IO forehand deep. That’s not a typical option for Thrash, one of the more conservative players on the field, and I wasn’t sure if it would connect. I shouldn’t have worried; the Buzz defender gave up as the disc sailed, perfectly weighted, for the goal.
Having recently watched an error-strewn all-star game in Manila, I got to thinking about how even the best players can sometimes struggle to make good decisions. In my eyes, there is no one better at making excellent decisions under pressure in ultimate than Thrash. A key handler for Clapham, he has the ability to move the disc, break the mark, and almost never turn it over; he is one of many reasons that Clapham has risen to become the European champion for four straight years. In three years of European club championships, Thrash had just a single turnover, a feat he replicated in the Clapham trip to Chesapeake 2013. That was all while he operated as a core handler.
Something that I’ve struggled with for many years is forgiving myself for poor decisions in games, so I sat down with Thrash to discuss decision making in ultimate and what he does that makes him excel.
Get Out Of The Comfort Zone
“Good decision making is something that comes from putting yourself in unfamiliar situations where you are forced to make quick decisions as often as possible,” he said. “Outside of a game – either before or between points – seek to analyze the scenario, execute on the field, then review afterwards.”
He explains that, for him, it’s important to know why he is successful or unsuccessful. “Detail is important; I’m the kind of person who gets to the end of the tournament and knows exactly where I messed up and why,” he noted.
For example, if you turn it over twice throwing to the break side, it’s not enough to know that you turned it over twice. You should know that you turned over once because you pump faked the first throw, the cutter hesitated, you threw it anyway, and the throw went behind the receiver. You should know that the second turnover was because you didn’t fake properly and were unbalanced when you released the disc.
With this additional level of detail, you can work out exactly what went wrong and use this to improve your decision making: don’t throw to a hesitant cutter. Don’t throw while unbalanced. These might not be new to anyone, but the important thing is the process of recognising when you’re in a scenario where you’re more likely to fail than to succeed. That’s the time to look for another option.
Be As Objective As Possible
“Once you adopt an analytical process to improving your decision making, it’s all about increasing your sample size,” said Thrash. “The more games you play under pressure, the more mistakes you’ll make, the more feedback you’ll get, the faster you’ll improve. Keep analysing why things work as well as why they don’t; feedback from both is useful.”
He hates confirmation bias: “Just because something worked doesn’t mean it was always a good decision, and just because a throw turns over doesn’t mean it was always a poor decision.” He advocates being more lenient with poor execution when it was the right decision, but you must know the difference between the two and still constantly strive to improve execution.
There are caveats, obviously: the weather, the position of defenders, your role on the team, if you’re fresh or deep into a tournament, who is cutting, familiarity with your cutters, etc. But the key principles apply. Something I think is a big factor that many teams don’t think about is precise placement of throws; for example, throwing to the shoulder furthest from the defender. Thrash agrees.
“Precisely,” he said. “I’m not throwing a ‘huck’. I’m throwing a particular shape of ‘huck’ based on the situation in front of me.”
No Egos; Dull Is Good
Thrash agrees with me that players often visualise success as making a spectacular play in a critical moment, rather than doing the right thing right now. “Good decisions make for boring ultimate,” he said. “Don’t let ego get in your way. If your whole team will call you a wimp for not taking on a throw, so what? If you don’t feel that it’s the right decision, don’t do it. Wait for the throw you can’t miss. The only thought on my mind is this: ‘My team must win.'”
How then, can a team improve its decision making? All of this is generally good guidance but what practical steps can a team make to improve?
“You have to learn to recognise when someone is open,” said Thrash. “At a high level, having a one meter separation between cutter and defender is so open you’re always going to throw it; in truth, you’re unlikely to have a huge athleticism gap so the defender is highly unlikely to make up that ground.” In reality, a foot or two is usually enough.
When introducing new players to your team or a new offence, it is important to reinforce cutting patterns and angles so that throwers can make quick decisions about where to throw; I like to use marker cones to give cutters an approximate target, rather than using the marker cone at which the thrower can aim.
“We run the ‘Magnet’ drill which is basically a cut away then to the break side,” Thrash noted. “We have a target area; any completed pass in there is a point, any completed pass for fewer yards scores zero, and any turnover or throw remotely behind the cutter where the D could have a bid is -1. The lesson is, move the marker early and the drill is easy.”
“I think it’s important that teams run drills where people constantly have to make decisions, rather than just having automatic flows,” he added. “Some teams are too structured.” He prefers drills which have a dictated way of initiating, but which have clear objectives and allow creativity. In essence, game-like drills. One example would involve a player with the disc on the sideline, a reset handler, and two cutters representing the front and back of the stack. Once the disc is checked in, all options are “real”… just like a game. By learning the optimal combinations (power position with deep continuation, or swinging with continuation to the break side), players can learn how to react to a given circumstance.
“It’s important to note that the best decision is not always the safest,” he said. For example, a team that plays aggressively deep and to the break side does themselves no favours by playing too conservatively, even on double game point. “Refusing to take on a break option because it’s sudden death is not good decision making.”
Of course, confidence in your own ability is important here. I distinctly recall matching up with someone in a big game years ago; he walked to the brick and attempted the inside break, which I handblocked. The following point, again at the brick, he broke me with the same throw. He knew that he’d win that battle nine times out of ten; just because the first was a failure for him didn’t mean that he wasn’t going to win the other nine.
Thrash is more harsh on poor decisions: “Never let yourself off with making poor decisions. Just because you’re 14-0 up doesn’t mean it’s a good time to suddenly practice something new.”
Where then should people learn to improve; surely if you want to get better, you’re going to make mistakes? “Have an objective before each practice.”
Tonight might be the night that you have zero turnovers, or look to the break side first every time, or move the disc before stall three. “It’s always important to make good decisions, even if – realistically – you could turn over and it wouldn’t matter,” he said. “Because when you take on poor options it will weaken your decision-making skills when you need them the most.”
If you want to play expansively, it should be a conscious decision before the point, not something you use to justify turning it over. “Otherwise, you’re cheating yourself,” he said. “People cheat all the time in drills. Don’t do it. In fact, I prefer to anti-cheat. I like to make drills harder than a game, as well as matching up against the people I find are the toughest defenders. I tell my defender where I’m going to cut, what throw I’m going to make, give them an extra yard…make it as hard as you can, as often as you can.”
What about during games? “Turning over in your own endzone is the same as hucking to no-one,” he said. “It’s still a turnover. Elite teams are going to score if you give them the disc. It’s a classic low-level ultimate mentality to ‘turn it down there instead of here’. Again, it’s an ego thing. Being handblocked feels bad, but to a lot of players its somehow ‘worse’ than turfing the disc. It isn’t.”
“Be objective at practice and during competition,” he continued. “Analyse why it went wrong afterwards, and understand why turns happen.”
Team-wide Recovery Strategy
I ask about how sometimes it can be easy to drift off, lose focus, and “just play” at practice, rather than playing with a specific objective. “I can honestly say that never happens to me,” he said. “When I’m playing, it always matters; there’s always an aspect of my game I can improve.” So how do you recover after turning over? “It’s usually focus. Get on the sideline, do some focused throwing. Visualise things you know you do well and how that benefits the team,” he said.
That’s all well and good, but what about mid-game? Let’s say it’s the first point of a big game, you turn it over and the team is broken. What can be done?
“Something we do at Clapham is use those 60 seconds before the next point carefully by dividing it into three chunks; the first 20 seconds is used to feedback about what went wrong, even complain to teammates, etc. Get it out of your system,” he said. “Then someone says ’20 seconds’ and we know it’s done, we let it go. We spend the next 20 seconds discussing generally about the next point – talking about their defence, our general objectives, etc.
“Then the final 20 seconds we call our offence, defence, and get our hands up ready to play.”
Thrash has provided us with some clear insights into the process of how to consistently make good decisions:
- Analyse your play, remember precise details about mistakes you were involved in for more detailed analysis later
- Redefine “success” as “a good decision” instead of “completing a pass”; this will allow your “successes” to change over time as you develop as a player
- Train in unfamiliar situations to breed familiarity (i.e. get comfortable being uncomfortable)
- Once your team know the basic patterns, primarily use ultimate drills that include real-time decision making
- Have a personal objective for each training session – be expansive, throw deep more, reset early, etc – and stick to it. Analyse yourself afterwards; were you able to fit the role you wanted to play?
- Make sure your team has a strategy to recover from poor decision making